Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010, A Year in Review - Part 1

As a whole, 2010 was a come down year from one of the finer years of cinema in my young lifetime. 2009 was a solid year with nearly ten A+ ratings, purely out of the movies that I managed to see, which I would only place that number at about twenty to twenty-five movies, and the same goes for this year. The difference this year, I've only seen five A+ movies. While some of that can change in the next few days as I plan on catching up on The King's Speech, Winter's Bone, and The Kids Are All Right, it's still not enough to redeem this lackluster year. Regardless, it's that time of year again, time to look back and see where we have come within a year and see how many resolutions were fulfilled, and to award those movies that even in a dry year, managed to bear fruit and be worth conversation. Like last year, this is going to be an epic, five part series, and this is only part one! So rather than round out the year with my usual awards, today is simply going to be looking back at 2010 and reminiscing about my own year in filmmaking, reminiscing about anything great or disturbing that occurred within the film industry this past year, and seeing how many of the stuff on my 2010 Most Anticipated list from back in January actually hit and stuck. But I wanna get things started talking about my own filmmaking experiences over the past year...

I started out last January shooting a film, Lost & Found. I got it shot, edited it, put titles to it, but never completed it. All the movie lacks is an A+ musical score, and I still have yet to get to that, but to be fair, I got distracted by Heaven's Touch, my student film that consumed my entire Spring semester this past year. Both Lost & Found and Heaven's Touch were disappointments for me, they just didn't quite live up to my vision, and it's frustrating to spend so much time making a film and not be satisfied with the end result. Though, I think I learned an invaluable lesson from these films, and in some ways they've helped me grow as a filmmaker. In this past year, I have completely changed my philosophy from wanting to be an auteur minded director to being a studio director who makes marketable films. I really don't see my own movies as art anymore, but as entertainment, and that's what I think I'm better at anyway. I mean, my first movie I directed (and completed) was Mr. Failure, and sure I have a few things that I would like to go back and change if I could, but as a whole it is way more enjoyable to go back and rewatch than any other film I've done so far, and the hand drawn animated film, Cooties, that took up my entire Fall semester of school this year, falls into the same category. I was very satisfied with Cooties, so satisfied in fact that it's the first film I've ever made that I wanna submit to film festivals, which is why I have yet to share it online. But that's enough about me. Aside from my own personal journeys as a filmmaker, the film industry as a whole went through some ups-and-downs this past year(depending on who you ask).

3-D became an even bigger staple after Avatar in 2009, leading to a renaissance at the box office through 3-D minded films like: Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and many more 3-D features. For better or worse, 3-D is succeeding where the film industry wanted it to, and I'm afraid it's here to stay, at least for the time being. Any reader of this blog knows how much I despise 3-D, but there seems to be no stopping it when it's making so much money. Regardless, good things did come out of Hollywood this year. While MGM started out the year in the bankruptcy dumps, in just the past month or two it has rebounded and has been saved from extinction, allowing films like The Hobbit and James Bond 23 to get back on track towards someday reaching a cinema near you. As well, 2010 showed the Library of Congress adding 25 more films to its National Film Registry to forever preserve these 25 movies that have been deemed important artifacts of American culture. The list this year includes stuff from Airplane! to The Exorcist, to the big win, my favorite movie of all-time, The Empire Strikes Back. What a great way to end a year, knowing that Empire will be around for generations to come so that they can forever enthrall to the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. So those were to me the biggest stories of this past year in regards to the film industry, so now it's time to go back over my 2010 Most Anticipated list and see what lived up and what didn't...

Well, my number 10 sorta happened, we know Christopher Nolan is coming back to direct Batman 3 now known as The Dark Knight Rises, but other than a Summer of 2012 release for the film and the casting of Tom Hardy, nothing is known about the story or the characters that will be in it. Speaking of C-Nol, my number 2 most anticipated last January was Inception and I hate to say, while it was good, I was disappointed; same goes for my numbers 5 and 8, Iron Man 2 and Shutter Island. My number 9, the Smallville-Absolute Justice 2-hour movie, hit and was a rousing success, and the same can be said for my numbers 7 and 1, TRON: Legacy and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part I. My number 4, the final season of LOST, had some good moments, but ultimately found itself as the weakest season of 'em all, but the rousing series finale made up for any missteps. Then, my number 3, to finish my film Lost & Found and submit it to the Sidewalk Film Festival, well that one sure didn't happen, and my number 6, 127 Hours, I have still yet to see cause studios just don't think us guys out here in Birmingham, AL, wanna see an awesome movie.

So looking back, 2010 was a year where the anticipated disappointed, and the sleepers pleasantly surprised. I mean, a year ago last year I put little stock into both True Grit and The Social Network, and both delivered, so anything can obviously happen within 12 months. While not my best year as a filmmaker, nor the best year as a filmgoer or enthusiast, there is still enough to award, and that's what we will be doing over the course of the next week or so. So stay tuned to the Unicellular Review for Part 2 of "A Year in Review"...

I give 2010 in Film a C+!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moive Review: "True Grit"

True Grit crackles and pops across the sweeping vistas of the Wild West, a time where the frontier actually existed, where young girls could pursue their father's killer in the name of revenge, and a time where a U.S. Marshall could be judge, jury, and executioner without any real appeal. The Coen Brothers have crafted a Western adventure that is everything a great Western should be, and something that many Westerns have lacked. They take us back to a simpler time, where men roamed the wilderness, where it was either good or bad, scoundrel or coward, and it is this simplicity that makes True Grit the superb cinematic achievement that it is.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross's father was murdered by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) recruits U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt Chaney down and bring him to justice, but here's the catch, Mattie must accompany Cogburn across the wilderness to exact her revenge upon Chaney. Along the way there are electrifying gunfights, beautiful landscapes, and a self-promoting Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who often teams up with Mattie and Rooster. The hunt is on.

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen make a sentimental film to a time long lost, without feeling at all sentimental, but being a work in memory of the time. Throughout the entire film, the Coens keep it pure and simple, and simplicity is the thing that makes this movie excel. There are no complex narrative structures or crazy frills and whistles, the movie does not innovate in these areas, but just does so well with what already exists. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is simply marvelous. Never is there an unecessary camera movement or handheld camera work to add some grit, but rather the cinematograpy is always precise and captures the essence of simplicity. Helping aid the simplicity, the score from Carter Burwell, adapted from four old 1800s hymns, is never obtrusive, always played purely, effectively, and reminiscent of what an 1800s church service might have felt like with just a couple twenty people and an organ to sing to.

The Coen Brothers' script sizzles with their trademark comedic flare, and it is through the humor that comes simply from the characters being themselves that creates a camaraderie between Mattie, Cogburn, and LaBeouf. Everyone is not as they seem in this movie. Mattie, contrary to her appearance, is a tough girl who will trek the wilderness to hunt down a killer, but she is also a compassionate person who sees things in others that no one else sees. Mattie sees beyond Cogburn's gruff exterior, and becomes his spunky sidekick, knowing that he is a man of heart who will carry her across the plains to save her life. Not only that, Mattie comes to believe in LaBeouf more than he does in himself, that he is a greater Ranger than both he and Cogburn give him credit for. But what makes their camaradarie work are the performances of the actors. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon deliver as one would expect, but the scene stealer is always thirteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Steinfeld is a firecracker whose emotions are pure, innocent, and straight-to-the-point. Nothing in her performance ever seems overthought, but just natural, and the tears of her seeing a horse put down or her fear when she falls into a pit of rattlesnakes, is true to human nature.

Never have I been more enthralled by a Wild West adventure than I was by the Coens' True Grit. Their simplistic view of a simpler time takes one back as a viewer to those times of their simplistic childhood, where we idolized heroes, and despised the villains. We were Mattie, and for a few hours, the Coens allow us to remember what it was like to be her.

I give True Grit an A+!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Few movies can make you question your own sanity, and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is such a movie. The movie is a loose adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake. The film follows the story of ballerina Nina Seyers (played by Natalie Portman), her own tale mirroring that of the White Swan in the ballet that she is performing in. But in the film, the Black Swan lurks in the wings in the form of a rival ballerina at the company (played by Mila Kunis), everything that Nina is not, and could she be trying to steal Nina's role from her?

Black Swan paints a picture of an obsessive art form. A strive for perfection and emotional release, and if you can no longer perform, you are washed up and no good. Black Swan fires on all cylinders and technically works. The direction of Aronofsky is engrossing, drawing you into Nina's claustrophobic world of paranoia, the performances from the actors are daring and immaculate, and the cinematography is stunning, in particular the beautifully photographed dream sequence that opens the film and is the highlight of this psychological thriller. Where the movie slips for me, is its racy material, where in the middle of the film it seems to lose itself in this odd perverted journey that is close to soft core porn. While it works to fit into the story, was it necessary to go as far as they do? I think no. These moments seem more a detriment to me, and hindered my enjoyment, seeming as if they were pure grabs to try and make some bank.

This is a film that is so well made, it is a shame to see it dip into such waters that lose it much credibility in my book.

I give Black Swan an F!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Movie Review: "Buried"

Paul Conroy awakes in a coffin buried under ground with only a cellphone and a Zippo lighter to aid him in his escape in the movie Buried. It's a movie all about the premise, all about the situation, all about the coffin, cause it takes place entirely in that one location. The movie is a checklist of all the things that could take this nightmarish situation and make it worse. A snake gets in the coffin, in one of the more thrilling sequences of the movie. Check! A fire starts in the coffin. Check! Dirt starts flooding in through a hole in the coffin. Check! The movie is a thrill ride that delivers in all of the desired areas. Ryan Reynolds is incredible, showing the range of just about every kind of emotion you'd feel in this situation. Fear. Anxiety. Sorrow. Frustration. Reynolds makes this a one-man show worth watching by just channeling the primal emotions of man, but the emotions can't fully cover up the moments where he is simply lying there in the coffin with nothing to do, and some stronger character development could have helped in that territory; of course, that is for writer Chris Sparling to figure out, and not Reynolds. So it's a fun and intense thrill ride, often at times channeling the work of Hitchcock, largely in part due to the marvelous title sequence and the fantastic musical score by Victor Reyes. But really, it's a face value entertainment only, not much going on beneath the surface save for the commentary on America's policy of dealing with terrorists. So what? This is a movie that is intense and nerve wracking, like it should be.

I give Buried a B+!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Tron: Legacy"

There is a moment in Tron: Legacy where Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn shows up at a cyber nightclub to save his son, Sam. At his arrival, the lights dim, and with a single touch, he derezzes the evil programs detaining Sam. Kevin Flynn is the creator of the cybernetic universe in Tron: Legacy, and the movie never wants us to forget his deistic importance to the Grid. While, Tron: Legacy could be seen as a father-son story, it is more a movie about the spiritual; the Grid possibly standing in for the spiritual battlefield between God and Satan.

Tron: Legacy starts in 1989. The CEO of tech. company ENCOM, Kevin Flynn, disappears, leaving his son, Sam to grow up embittered and resentful over the next 25 years or so. We catch up with an adult Sam, irresponsible, and with a chip on his shoulder due to his Dad's disappearance. He's spoiled and rich due to the money from is Daddy's estate, but when a page comes from his Dad's office that hasn't been inhabited for over 20 years, Sam goes investigating. One thing comes to another, Sam messes around with a computer, and he is shot inside it, into the Grid! Here Sam soon learns that the only way to live in this world is to fight in gladiatorial combat with computer programs, and it is here that Sam finds his father after 20 years, but getting his father back to the portal to the real world is the adventure.

Like all great adventure stories, in Tron: Legacy you have the hero in Sam Flynn, the villain in the computer program Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges, de-aged by CGI), and you have the mentor in Kevin Flynn himself, the creator. Like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars before it, it follows a formula. A hero ventures from his Ordinary World into one of the Extraordinary that is both frightening and fantastical at the same time, but what makes these by-the-book adventure stories stand on their own are the messages hidden beneath the material, and that is the true earmark of a fantastic adventure story, and why they are so important to the fabric of storytelling. Tron: Legacy easily joins those ranks, laying everything out in the open with an ease that is comforting, letting the story transpire rather than trying to shove continuous action down our throats, and this is where it manages to be so much more than any other CGI-laden spectacle you'll see this year.

Yes, the CGI is breathtaking, the action perfectly paced throughout the course of the story, but Tron: Legacy manages to stay with the viewer not through these things, but through its battles of the spirit. Kevin Flynn is the Grid, he created it, with his touch he can change or manipulate almost anything he wants, but there is an opposing force that wants to impede Flynn's every move. Flynn long ago created the program Clu, to help him build a perfect society, but like the Fallen Angels, Clu had different ideas of perfection than those of Flynn, and he went rogue, trapping Flynn in the Wasteland of the Grid for over 20 years! Then, Sam comes down to the Grid, the Creator's Son, and he is the only one who can help liberate the Grid from Clu's iron grasp. It is an allegorical spiritual battle. Whether you are religious or not, the story can simply be seen as the battle between Good and Evil within us all. Clu was once part of Kevin Flynn, so in essence he is Flynn's manifestation of the Evil within him, and he must overcome it to save the Grid. It is in these points where the movie is most poignant, and it is what makes the movie not just visually stimulating, but stimulating to your mind as well.

Regardless to all of this, Tron: Legacy is just also a lot of fun. The action is relentless and heart-pounding, probably owing something to the thumping bass of the soundtrack, produced in techno glory by the group Daft Punk, whose computerized music lends an extra edge to this cybernetic adventure. Jeff Bridges is a powerhouse as both Kevin Flynn and Clu. He exudes a larger than life presence throughout the movie, and he is at times fatherly, menacing, and graceful. Garrett Hedlund is a believable movie hero in the stock tradition of 20-somethings who have a chip on his shoulder to only have that chip brushed off by the end, but it is the supporting cast that steals the show. There is an electrifying performance from actor Michael Sheen as a computer program known as Castor, played almost like a warped circus ring leader, who is as slippery a customer as can come in terms of his motives. Though the character of Flynn's loyal sidekick, Quorra is the best of the entire movie. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra as a hardhitting program with a fascination for human life and culture, leading to some funny moments due to her quirky personality. But first and foremost, Quorra is a feministic heroine who seems to show no interest in Sam other than sisterly affection, and it is a relief to see a female character not be used as the love interest and be used to kick some butt. To put it simply, she is a character who yearns for the deeper understandings of things greater than her, a Joan of Arc of the Grid.

I feel like I've gone on-and-on about how fantastic this movie was, because there really isn't a false note to it. Director Joseph Kosinski has crafted an adventure yarn that is woven with spiritual allegories, allowing one to be entertained, moved, and also stimulated. Tron: Legacy is simply movie magic, a sequel way beyond its predecessor, and adventure up there with some of the best of the genre.

I give Tron: Legacy an A+!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Movie Review: "The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

The new Chronicles of Narnia adventure, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, trades the epic exterior of its two predecessors for an insular seafaring yarn that is always entertaining, but lacking in sheer fantastical scope.

The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows the youngest of the Pevensie siblings, Edmund and Lucy, as they are whisked back to Narnia alongside their annoying cousin Eustace, who would rather not believe that such a fantastical place exists. The Pevensies team up once again with former Prince, now King, Caspian to sail across the Narnia Seas to return the Seven Swords of these Narnian Lords to Aslan's Table far beyond the edges of Narnia's map, and the adventure ensues to stop this evil mist from bringing darkness to all of Narnia.

While Dawn Treader is never light on laughs, action, or heart, the movie never takes enough of a break from the action to expand the world in which the story takes place in. Director Michael Apted shoots everything as if it was a gritty, real world drama, forsaking the lyrical look and feel of the first two installments. We are never given a chance to see the sheer grandeur of this fantastical world that is Narnia, a world that should feel more lively than our own, but alas the real world sequences have more of a genuine scope than those in Narnia. Regardless, Apted manages to make Dawn Treader a more insular experience than its previous installments.

There is more character exploration in this Narnia adventure than in either of the first two. The stories chronicling Lucy's development into accepting herself as who she is, and not being jealous of her older sister's beauty, alongside the arc of Eustace (played hilariously by Will Poulter) being greedy, transforming into a dragon, and then learning how to not be a brat while flying around spouting fire, are the two finest aspects of this movie. While the mysterious mist overtaking the Seas of Narnia is not as threatening a villain as a human opponent may have been, C.S. Lewis utilized the mist in the book as an allegory to the sin and temptations of man, and it is in these scenes of temptation where the mist is a menacing antagonist to our heroes. Whether it's Caspian's doubts in his leadership, Edmund's desire to be strong and powerful, or Lucy's yearning to be beautiful and desirable to the opposite sex, Michael Apted serves the characters well.

While Dawn Treader has some moments where it stumbles, it has more than enough moments that make it a worthwhile voyage. Reepicheep the mouse is still a comedic highlight to this series of films, and Aslan's presence always warms the heart whenever he appears. What really makes this a movie worth watching, is the way that the philosophical ideas and spiritual allegories presented are woven into the adventure, that it is impossible to not be moved in some way.

I give The Chronicles of Narnia-The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a C+!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dangers of Hype

It's a common practice to see a movie trailer and say, "Hey I wanna see that," problem is, we no longer say that simple phrase, but rather, "That movie is going to be amazing!" We make up our minds about the movie in question from the trailer, and it is getting even worse, with many (mostly fanboys) heaping huge amounts of praise on a movie before they even start filming, just purely based on the talent involved. This is where we begin to see the dangers of overhyping in today's filmatic society.

I'll admit, I've been a victim to overhyping movies, but what's gotten me thinking about this is just how I've seen over the past year, fanboys, or even critics, say that a certain movie in question is going to be the greatest movie ever, without having seen a single frame of footage, and that rubs me the wrong way. Movies like Avatar, Tron: Legacy, or even artsy fare like Terrence Malick's upcoming The Tree of Life, have inspired many to already review the movie in their heads, and I can't say I haven't done that before. That's why I was disappointed this past Summer with Inception, I was expecting so much more from all of the hype than it actually delivered. Sometimes there is no way that any movie could ever live up to such expectations, and it's there that the "Dangers of Hype" are.

We need to, as moviegoers, get back to saying, "I wanna see that," rather than saying, "That movie is going to be amazing!" To be honest, I'd rather enjoy a movie than be disappointed, and if what it takes to ensure that the movie doesn't fail to meet my own ideas of perfection is to accept the possibility that it may not be the best movie ever, then I've succeeded as a moviegoer. Regardless, if it looks or sounds interesting, I'll see it, but I wont review it till after, not before.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Biases of the Academy

I love trying to predict the Oscars and then eventually watching the ceremony to see who wins, but as big of a fan I am of the film industry's most storied awards ceremony, there are certain biases that tend to arise that the folks at the Academy have yet to ever truly rectify. If a movie is a member of the fantasy/science fiction genre, or its animated, or if it even stars character actors, the movie and the work behind it tends to get overlooked by the Academy. While these movies may get nominated, a win is nigh impossible, and this is where I'd like to see the Academy evolve.

There is a certain snobbery that the Academy tends to take to product that is different than the normal fare of live action real world drama or comedy. By their standards, it is much easier to award a movie about a military unit that disarms bombs than it is to award a one of a kind moviegoing experience that creates a whole new world and culture; and the excuse of these snobs is that The Hurt Locker is more narratively original than Avatar? Puh-lease! Saying Avatar is simply Dances With Wolves in space is an ignorant excuse to not give it any artistic credit. When you get right down to it, every story is reminiscent of some other story if you really wanna break it down, and it is because nearly every story derives from mythical or biblical allegories. As for ignoring the performances in said movies? It takes way more imagination from an actor to kill with the Avada Kedavra curse and make it believable than it does for a dude playing a serial killer in a gritty cop drama. Which takes me to my next point, why is the Academy so down on animation as well?

Only two animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and while animation has its own category in Best Animated Feature, no animation director or voice actor has ever been nominated for Best Director or Actor. What is this snobbery the Academy has against animation directing and vocal performance? To be honest, it takes even five times more imagination than an actor in a fantasy movie to pull off a convincing voice performance. Think about it, usually all they have is the director's cues, and their bodies can't be seen to aid them in what they're thinking, so all of the emotion of their performance must come through their voice and not be too over-the-top or too subtle. It takes a lot of imaginative work from both the actors and directors. While the Academy could rectify things with a Best Director for an Animated Feature or Best Voice Performance for an Animated Feature, you can't tell me that it wouldn't be forward thinking of them to nominate someone like Hayao Miyazaki in Best Director alongside Spielberg, or Tom Hanks for his performance as Woody in Toy Story? But if there is one bias that the Academy has that makes even less sense than their biases to animation or the fantastical, it's being so good at your job that you get overlooked.

Let's be honest, most people we consider A-list "movie stars" aren't always the best actors, they're just the best looking, but they are the ones that are awarded year after year at the Oscars and not the character actors of the industry, the talent that is always consistent in the performance category. You know why Brad Pitt gets nominated, or Natalie Portman, is cause they're public movie stars who don't always deliver the goods, so when they do a performance that turns a few heads they get nominated, it doesn't matter if the work was groundbreaking or not, the Academy wants to award their "Movie Stars". Though, isn't it odd that Gary Oldman has never even been nominated for an Oscar? Or the same goes for Alan Rickman? Two actors that are always consistent, no matter what movie their in, or what sort of role they're playing, they knock it out of the park, and they are the kind of actors that are so good at their job that they are always overlooked, and here's why...

If Brad Pitt gives a good performance in the same year as Oldman, then the Academy will see the "movie star" and not the "actor". I'm not saying that Brad Pitt isn't a real actor who doesn't do good work, what I'm saying is that the Academy is never taken by surprise if the likes of Oldman or Rickman deliver a powerhouse performance, because it is expected of them, even if it's better work than the "movie star" simply cause the stigma of the "movie star" deters opinion. As it is, I don't see anything changing anytime soon, but I can vent, can' t I?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Goodbye, Kersh...

Movie director Irvin Kersner recently passed away at the age of 87. Kershner was best known as the director of the fifth episode in the Star Wars saga, The Empire Strikes Back. Aside from his dabblings in the galaxy far, far, away, Kersh (as he was known to his friends) was at one time one of the finest genre directors in the industry. Through films like: Eyes of Laura Mars, James Bond flick Never Say Never Again, Robocop 2, and of course, The Empire Strikes Back, Kersh branded these typical genre efforts with a sense of class, sophistication, and smarts that most other genre films lacked; making genre adventures and thrillers that, much like the films of Alfred Hitchcock, could be taken seriously.

As cheesy as it sounds, I don't know if I'd be the same person I am if it wasn't for Irvin Kershner. I never knew the man personally, but I knew his work. The Star Wars films, in particular The Empire Strikes Back (my favorite movie of all-time, by the way), is what made me want to pursue film as a career, and as a filmmaker, I am still aspiring to Kersh's work within that film. I've argued this before, but there is no other movie in the history of the movies that is so well directed; the performances from the actors are spot on, each and every shot has meaning and looks just as remarkable as the next, and the pacing of the storytelling is picture perfect. What The Empire Strikes Back is to me, is not a movie that I envy, but a movie that I aspire to. The movie is so perfect in every way, I can only hope to someday make a movie that I can consider to be on the same level with Empire, and that is all thanks to Kersh, a movie legend who will greatly be missed. May the Force be with him...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Movie Review: "Tangled"

Tangled is another animated motion picture in a long line of Disney movies trying to recapture their past glories without really stepping out to reclaim the animation field. We all know the story of Rapunzel, how she's locked away in a tower and such, but Disney gives it their trademark fairy tale twist (and I almost thought that they'd run out of fairy tales). Rapunzel was long ago kidnapped from her King and Queen parents by a wicked woman who wanted to use Rapunzel's hair to stay young. Of course, this is a musical, with music from Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid), so it makes sense that whenever Rapunzel sings a certain song, her hair has the ability to heal or make one youthful once more, but if Rapunzel's hair is ever cut, she will lose that power forever. Thus her abductee of a mother locks Rapunzel up in a tower all her life till the paths of Rapunzel and the country's most notorious thief, Flynn Rider, cross and romance ensues as, with Flynn as her guide, Rapunzel finally leaves her tower.

Tangled does feel Disney throughout, but it just feels as if we've seen this same Disney movie at least ten times by now, which I think goes against its goal. Tangled desired to be an update on the age old Disney princess-fairy tale formula, and I don't know if it worked entirely. The animators seemed to focus more so on action and adventure and more slapstick-like comedy than ever before, coating it in glossy CG-animation that just made me pine for the good ol' hand drawn days again. The music was not as memorable, nor as enjoyable as that of previous Menken/Disney collaborations; while the songs were solid, there was never that tune that you just couldn't get out of your head like "A Whole New World" or "Beauty and the Beast". Regardless, Tangled still managed to be a movie that is entertaining and funny throughout, in a large part due to their fresh takes on the stock Disney characters of the Princess and Prince Charming.

Rapunzel was a very different kind of Disney Princess than we're accustomed to seeing, less sure of herself and more of an innocent child who can't make up her mind between her dreams or her loyalty to her abductee of a mother. Her beau is Flynn, the kind of swashbuckling Prince Charming that the old Disney movies lacked, a thief with a soul and charisma behind those good looks. Unfortunately, the weakest character was the villainess of Rapunzel's adoptive mother, whose character never seems to fully commit to her villainy, starting out as merely a person possessed by greed and not fully transitioning into a force of evil. I feel much more could have been done with her character in playing with the idea that she only pretends to like Rapunzel and doesn't actually love her, which was hinted at a lot through the character's facial expressions. I will say, the silent animal characters of Maximus the Horse and Pascal the Chameleon make up for any shortcomings with laughs, these two characters having benefitted the most from this more slapstick-Emperor's New Groove-style approach.

So what can I say, Tangled maybe tries too hard to be a blast from the past and it never really comes into its own. There are many great ideas played around with here, and this really is the most entertained I have been by a Disney animation since Tarzan, but Disney tries to hold onto the past too much here and doesn't let the past go to try and usher in a new era of Disney animation. So what if Tangled feels so familiar that I can pretty much predict what will happen? There is a reason the Disney formula from the '80s and '90s worked, and there's a reason it worked way back in the '20s with Snow White. It's heartwarming, and the big duet between Rapunzel and Flynn on the lake surrounded by glowing lanterns is Disney magic, no matter how you feel about the rest of the movie's execution.

I give Tangled a C+!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Future: 3D vs. Imax

It's sort of silly to boil things down to a simple boxing-like set-up, but that's what this matter truly is. Ask just about any studio executive out in Hollywood, they will tell you that 3D is the future of movies, and while that may be true fifty years from now, at this current moment in time, it is not there yet, but what is, is Imax. Imax is the current future of movies, and the studios seem so obsessed with 3D that they aren't noticing the fantastic opportunities they have before them.

I'll be honest, I've never seen a movie in 3D that I liked. While Avatar was supposedly top-tier 3D, I've gotta say I liked the movie five times more when I saw it in 2D. Why would I intentionally want to hamper my viewing experience by wearing shaded glasses that darken the image on the screen, mute the colors, and ultimately build a wall in between me and the movie? 3D movies are supposed to make the moviegoing experience more immersive, but they fail to do just that. While the concept of 3D is great for an amusement park ride, it's only a gimmick that cannot do anything but hurt the images. And as for all of this crap about movies finally being in 3D, I think you could argue that movies have always been in 3D. A 2D movie is composed so that there is a depth of field between the separate actors and the objects onscreen. This depth of field already makes what is 3D in real life, 3D onscreen. Sure, it's not jumping out at you, but if that's what you want, go to Disney World. If you really want to know the future of the movies, it is Imax.

Imax technology has been around for decades now, but it is just now getting more popular in the mainstream movie market. We've all probably heard of Imax, or possibly even seen a movie on an Imax screen, but Imax is so much more than just a movie screen two times too big. There has never been a mainstream movie made shot entirely in the Imax format (70 mm film, where as all normal feature length films are shot on 35 mm). The bigger film stock does more than just make the image two times bigger, but it makes the image clearer, gives more clarity to what you are seeing, and makes the already discussed depth of field more noticeable.

While many 35 mm films are blown up to 70 mm to be released on the Imax screen, there is a difference between simply blowing up the print to actually shooting on the stock. An example was The Dark Knight, where 20 minutes of that movie was actually shot on Imax film stock, 70 mm. Even when watching the movie on standard-def DVD, there is a clear difference in terms of image quality between the 35 mm film scenes and the 70 mm film scenes. Imagine an entire movie shot on the format? Now, imagine watching that movie on a 53 foot tall screen with added clarity to the image quality? Immersion.

I think it's safe to assume that most people nowadays have seen one of those 45 minute or so educational films shot entirely on Imax. A good example is the Imax ed. film, Everest. Watching that movie on an Imax screen is so immersive, it's beautiful. Every camera move on that gigantic screen sweeps you away over the icy slopes. Every action is precisely seen on the climb up the icy cliffs. Or whenever a person is in the foreground, there is clear separation between him and the snowy background, and that is 3D, in which you didn't need glasses to experience; it's immersion through the legitimate Imax experience of watching a 70 mm film. While this technology is ready for use at the filmmaker's fingertips, it does have its drawbacks.

As mentioned, Imax has been around for years, and it is only just now becoming somewhat affordable, but even still, it is a highly expensive format to shoot on, and the tiniest mistake costs millions to fix. As well, the cameras used are too bulky for your average moviemaking equipment, meaning special rigs must be used to shoot with the camera. Not to mention, the noise of the Imax film running through the camera is so loud, it has been reported by many filmmakers shooting on Imax, that it is hard to capture dialogue with so much ambient noise. With that all said, the end result is five times more worth it than that of 3D.

I feel that those in the movie industry should focus all of their time and efforts on refining the Imax moviemaking process, rather than pushing for 3D, which is not ready for the mainstream, yet. If they could just make Imax cameras that were quieter, a little bit smaller, and more cost effective, perhaps an entire feature will be shot in the format rather than just part of one. An Imax ticket costs about as much as a 3D ticket, so it's not like the studios will lose money; not to mention, movie screens have to be adapted anyways if they're to show 3D movies, so why not go all out and make the screen an Imax screen (if you have the space)?

Regardless, I do think that there is a future in 3D moviemaking technology, but not now. They need to continue refining the process, for starters, by making a 3D movie that isn't dimly lit or has muted colors when viewed through the prism of the glasses, but that's just it, the glasses must be lost. Until a 3D movie is made that doesn't need the glasses in order to see the stuff flying towards your face, then 3D will not become a mainstay of moviemaking. Unfortunately, I feel that day is a long ways off. For now, Imax is the future.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1"

In some ways it is always tough as a filmmaker to watch the Harry Potter movies when they first come out. As a writer/director and avid fan of the books, I already have preconceived notions in regards as to how I would film certain scenes, as to how I would write certain scenes, and as to what I would cut or accentuate to make the story a cinematic reality. I didn't get to direct this movie (which that would have been a dream come true), but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1 is a cinematically satisfying experience on its own terms.

The filmmakers completely dispensed with the pleasantries here. Much how they tackled the Half-Blood Prince, they do nothing to clue the viewer into this world or reintroduce you to these characters or even the storyline that was set up at the end of the previous movie. Deathly Hallows-Part 1 picks up right where Half-Blood Prince ended, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, going off on their own, in search of the seven Horcruxes, which hold pieces of Voldemort's soul; if these Horcruxes are destroyed, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can finally be killed, but what are these mysterious Deathly Hallows that our trio stumble across on their journey?

If you aren't a fan of Harry Potter by now, this movie is not the kind of stand alone adventure that will make you one. As mentioned, none of the characters, nor even the magical objects such as the Marauder's Map or the Locket are reintroduced to the viewer, even certain things such as as the broken mirror shard that Harry carries around with him (which was only in the book and not in the previous movies) is never explained to the audience. The filmmakers knew that the best way to free themselves to tell this story was to assume that the audience seeing these movies have already seen all six previous films and have read all seven of the books. While this may be a detriment to those who have't read the books or to your casual moviegoer, as a fan it was increasingly liberating. A.) You do not feel like you were being retaught things that you already know, and B.) It allowed the story to consistently be moving forward and not have to retread facts of the past to make this an easier movie for those unfamiliar with this story to understand.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates proved to be an effective duo yet again, being able to fill so many tiny details into this movie for the Harry Potter faithful, and ultimately made the richness of the books transcend into the realms of the movies. In particular, Yates has surprised me once more. He has grown so much as a filmmaker since Order of the Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows-Part 1 looks as if it was directed by a consummate professional at the top of his craft. Yates was able to convey so much texture with so little. Very often dialogue was never used to explain certain feelings or emotions to the audience, and it was up to Yates to manipulate your feelings through the shots, and this is where he was most splendid; such as when Ron becomes jealous of Harry and Hermione's friendship, or when Harry sees the story about Dumbledore in the newspaper. And the trio of the actor's give probably their most affecting performances yet, in particular Emma Watson, who has way more emotional scenes to chew on than either Daniel Radcliffe or Rupert Grint. This movie is put entirely on the trio's shoulders (with the colorful cast of supporting characters only in to throw in their token lines of dialogue) and I was thoroughly impressed with their talent and ability.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1 is a standard adventure movie taken on the road, away from Hogwarts. In some ways it reminded me of The Fellowship of the Ring and the perils those characters met on the road throughout that movie, and much like that movie, this is only the set-up for the story in which we all want to see (a.k.a. Part 2). Ultimately, this is one of the most beautifully photographed Harry Potter movies, thanks to Eduardo Serra's DP work, and David Yates directs some of the action sequences with so much pizazz, in particular the scenes in the Ministry and when Harry and Hagrid fly through the air on a motorcycle chased by Death Eaters. So what if non-fans of Harry Potter wont understand this movie? If you haven't read these books or seen the other movies by now, then to be completely candid, why are you seeing this movie anyways?

I give Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 1 an A+!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Transformative Call to Adventure

Adventures have been staples of storytelling for as long as stories have been exchanged between man, and adventure stories within the cinema are a dime a dozen, but a simple genre that started off merely as Saturday matinee cheese has become the studios bread and butter. How did the adventure movie become what it is today?

The other night I was watching the 1960 adpatation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, made by George Pal, and what I was struck by with that movie was how low budget of an affair it was. While it was one of the biggest moneymakers of its respective year, the costumes and sets were laughable (about on par with the original Star Trek television series), and this got me thinking about the genre we now know as adventure. It's interesting that back then, while adventure movies were financially successful, the studios put less money in them, whereas nowadays, the entire backbone of the studios strategy is to put all of their money into adventure movies and less in every other kind of movie produced. While adventure movies of yesteryear and adventure movies of today are still the prime source of revenue for the studios, budgets and respectability have morphed over the years.

Back in the early days of cinema, adventure movies were simple swashbucklers starring the likes of Errol Flynn; they were movies meant to attract the children for the Saturday matinee. The sets were often flimsy, the costumes laughable, and yet people continued to show up to see them. Cinemagoers seemed to enthrall to the exploits of tongue and cheek adventure, but what made many of these early adventure movies different than what they are today is that the people making them didn't take them seriously. The performances were over the top, and less money was put into these movies than the bloated star-driven epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As time progressed, it seemed that everyone was simply laughing at these movies and just simply saw them as cheap thrills.

Then, in 1977 along came Star Wars and totally reshaped the whole idea of the adventure movie. Star Wars was one of the first in a line of adventure movies that would go on to include: Superman: The Movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and eventually movies like The Dark Knight or Avatar. What Star Wars did, and many of these transformative adventure movies of the late 70s and early 80s, is they were big budgeted affairs from the studios. A higher sheen of quality was applied to this once throwaway genre. More respectable actors were being attracted to the roles (i.e. Marlon Brando in Superman), more respectable directors (i.e., Irivn Kershner and The Empire Strikes Back), and more respectable writers (i.e., Lawrence Kasdan and Raiders of the Lost Ark). What this did is it made critics and moviegoers alike start to think of advneture movies as more than just cheap thrills and laughable acting, costumes, and sets, but they began to see these movies as serious and respectable pieces of cinema.

Think about it, Star Wars is still being studied by purveyors of Greek mythology, religion, and Shakespearean dynamics. The adventure movie is no longer seen as throwaway trash, but as something that has some more heft to it. While, yes there are many an adventure movie nowadays that do not apply that heft, there are just as many "dramas" that miss the mark entirely as well. I mean, just think, in the past few years we have gotten adventure movies like: The Dark Knight, Spider-man 2, and Avatar, alongside a great many others, that all arguably have great philosophical and emotional depths to their storytelling. An adventure movie even finally won an Oscar (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)!

I don't know where the adventure movie is to go from here. Me personally, I would like to see the few critics still out there of this genre that refuse to consider these movies as works of art, change their minds on this genre and accept it. They don't have to like it, but don't deride the genre simply because a movie about a guy who dresses up as a bat or a teen who happens to be a wizard is just a touch too much fantasy for them. Perhaps a few more Oscar-winning adventure movies may change the thoughts of the few naysayers still out there, regardless, great adventures like Peter Pan or The Iliad are still staples of classic literature and considered art, so why not The Dark Knight or Star Wars? Just a simple question.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movie Review: "Unstoppable"

What do you do when a train carrying hazardous materials mistakenly rockets out of the train yard towards a highly populated area where it is sure to derail at its speed? Call in Denzel Washington and Captain Kirk, a.k.a. actor Chris Pine. That is the movie Unstoppable, a story inspired by true events.

We watch as actor Ethan Suplee gets inside train 777 simply to move it, but when he jumps out of the cab to switch tracks, the throttle shifts out of position and the train rockets out of the train yard at 70 mph. Much of the first half of the movie follows the train's progress, rather than our eventual working class heroes, Washington and Pine. Washington plays a veteran train engineer who has been fired to make room for the new, younger guys like Pine, and he only has three weeks left at the railroad company. Director Tony Scott really plays with this dynamic in Pine being the conductor above Washington on the train in which they just happen to be driving towards number 777. This is a very current issue that is being seen right now, and it's nice to see the incompetence of the young upstarts, and the skill and knowledge of the vets, letting us know that these old dogs have still got some bite left in 'em and we shouldn't write 'em off. Of course, our heroes eventually decide to chase down the train and stop it from derailing, and it it here that it is most apparent that this is a movie all about the journey and entertainment, so I wasn't prepared for the emotional heft of the second half of the story.

In the first half, Washington and Pine's screen time is minimal, and very little character development occurs other than what we see from their first meeting, young gun meeting vet, but once they decide to chase down the train, their relationship grows and we actually get an emotional component to this story. Director Tony Scott takes a very minimalist approach to this movie, he only follows train 777 and its progress, and we don't really follow our heroes till they're in the cross-hairs of the train. In some ways I would have liked to have seen more character development in the first 45 minutes between Washington and Pine, but then that would have stopped this unstoppable story and would have lost much of the story's intensity. This is a thrill ride through and through; while it is formulaic, it is also entertaining and emotionally rewarding.

I give Unstoppable an A!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Critical Opinion?

When do you get to the point that critical opinion no longer matters? I am intentionally trying to stay away from reviews, or even clips from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part I. This is an extremely new practice for me, cause typically with movies I really wanna see I scour the internet and find every morsel of footage I can see, every review left unread, until by the time I sit into the theater I already know what to expect and there is no surprise. I've decided to try and avoid these things as best as possible with these final two Harry Potter movies, and even still I have seen a few reviews. Most of the reviews are typically, "Blah, blah, uneven pacing, yada, yada, yada..." the same stuff that critics have been saying about the Harry Potter movies since the very beginning, and I'd actually venture to say, that by this point in the series tenure, critical opinion no longer matters.

Critics who have been reviewing these movies since the very first, if they didn't like that one, they're not gonna like any one that comes after it because it is a continuing story where the tone, character relationships, and same type of story structure are repeated movie after movie. Regardless as to what critics say, fans will see this movie. Regardless as to what they say, many fans will enjoy this movie. And regardless to what the say, just about as many fans will whine about any minor changes the movie made to the source material, and the fans will feud for decades to come. The critics opinion does not sway anyone here, much like it doesn't with Star Wars, and I think it's pretty safe to say that the Harry Potter movies are no longer trying to gain new viewers but simply be a service to fans, and that's how it should be.

Starting with the last Harry Potter movie, The Half-Blood Prince, I noticed that the filmmakers no longer were burdening themselves to try and clue the viewers into this world and reintroduce them to their characters, they just took off, to where if you had not seen the previous five movies, well you were out of luck. They spent so much time with the 4th and 5th movies trying to make them more commercial in appeal, and the end result wasn't so much Harry Potter, but Deathly Hallows-Part I seems to be following Half-Blood Prince's logic, and I'm fine with that. At least the filmmakers and studio seem to understand, if you aren't already a fan of the boy wizard, then this movie wont change your thoughts, and that is also why I think the movie was split into two parts, to do full service to the 750 page tome. I by no means want to see such a literal translation that I'd just rather read the book (like the 2nd movie, Chamber of Secrets), but I wanna see it realized cinematically in a way that fully does justice to the source material, but allows these movies to come into their own and be their own stand alone materials of time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Overrated

For every classic that lives up to the hype, there always seem to be the spoiler, that classic movie that no matter how many times you watch it you can not get into them. This has been a topic that I've been thinking on a lot recently, and I've decided to just list off what I believe to be the 5 most overrated classics of all-time. Obviously, not everyone will agree with me, but it is here that I must be honest and fess up. But before diving into what I don't like, I'll just list off a brief list of classics I adore:

Star Wars, E.T., Rear Window, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bonnie and Clyde, American Grafitti, The 400 Blows, 8 1/2, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and a great many more. Now, on to the Overrated:

5. The Graduate - This movie may have been significant in its day, but there are way more movies from this same period that are more significant and are better movies; Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider to name a few. Sure, this movie gave Dustin Hoffman his big break, and that should be enough, but when the subject matter is A.) this awkward, and B.) this oddly paced, not to mention, C.) the characters motivations bounce around like a ping-pong ball, it's hard to enjoy it. My opinion, if you wanna check out a fantastic movie from director Mike Nichols, watch Regarding Henry in one of Harrison Ford's finest moments as an actor.

4. Vertigo - To even list an Alfred Hitchcock movie on this list pains me, but in this case it had to be done. Vertigo is the most hyped of all of Hitch's movies; so many people tell you that if you like his other work you'll like Vertigo, but unfortunately that isn't the case for me. I love Rear Window, Notorious, North by Northwest, but Vertigo just does not succeed for me. The story is very much interested in being a sort of deconstruction of Hitchock's usual thrillers, and when he starts trying to explain the supernatural elements of the story with a Sherlock Holmes styled deduction, I am completely lost. What can I say? Hitch is one of my favorite directors of all-time, but Vertigo just isn't one of his best works in my opinion.

3. The Third Man - This film noir involving Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten was misleading from the very first frame. The movie wants to be a deconstruction of the genre while refining it at the same time, and it does not work. The movie lacks any real suspense or mystery, and seems to be more interested in just stringing us along on this wild goose chase searching for the mysterious "Third Man" and giving us nothing but deflated excitement in the end. For a better film noir that serves as a deconstruction of the genre, while refining it, give Akira Kurosawa's classics Stray Dog or Drunken Angel a shot.

2. Blow-Up - Much like The Third Man, this is a movie that I don't like for similar reasons. Where's the suspense? There's a mystery, he wants to uncover this murder he thinks he's caught in a photograph, but when the Beatnik acts so non-chalant about it, if he doesn't care, why should I care? Yeah, I know, this movie needs to be seen as a capsule of its time, of the Hippy-Beatnik culture, free love, and how things like murder aren't important in the grand scheme of things, but its a movie that its message does not jive with me. And so what? I feel like I saw a 90 minute movie that pretended to have a story but really didn't, and I have to say, I think that was the intent. If you like that sort of stuff, then it might be worth checking out for you, but not for me.

1. Breathless - The Granddaddy of them all, cited as one of the most influential movies of all-time, and you know what, I don't like it. Jean Luc Godard's movie is a story, much like Blow-Up and The Third Man, that nothing really seems to happen throughout the course of the story. Are we supposed to care for these characters who think they're so cool, that they're beyond the rest of us? As for the almighty jump cut, I have seen it utilized in many movies where it works to great psychological and thematic effect, but this does not seem to happen here. The jump cuts are erratic, do not add to the story, and seem to me more of a mistake than an artistic choice made by the director. If you want to see the best of the New Wave, watch The 400 Blows from Francois Truffaut, a finer director in my opinion.

So there you have it, now that I've probably ticked off at least 99.99% of the readership. Have at it, say what you think of what I got right, and what you think I got horribly wrong in the comments section below.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Movie Review: "Due Date"

In Due Date, Robert Downey, Jr., and Zach Galifianakis play the typical odd couple in this vulgarized take on the road trip movie. Galifianakis' character accidentally lands Downey onto the no-fly list, and Downey's wife is going to have a C-section in five days, so the two must travel cross country together to get Downey home for his baby's birth. Fairly standard scenario, Downey is the straight man, and Galifianakis is the guy who no matter what he does, his crazy antics will always wreak havoc upon Downey in one way or another, and these gags just feel tried and done before. For example, Downey has an African American friend in Jamie Foxx, and of course they play the usual gag where Downey walks into the delivery room and sees an African American baby on the table to only find out that he went to the wrong room, and this sort of sums up how the whole movie is. It is a movie that seems more interested in these kind of one note gags than any hint of a real story with emotional heft. While a few of the gags are funny, most of them, like the above mentioned gag, are been there, laughed at that before. While these gags can still make you laugh, how many times can we laugh at the same thing, and when it's surrounded by a standard, cliche story that is light on any real consequence or conflict, you wind up with Due Date.

I give Due Date an F!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

When is it too much?

Oscar winner Danny Boyle's new film, 127 Hours, tells the story of mountain climber Aron Ralston whose arm gets pinned beneath a boulder and he must chop off his own arm in order to scale a 65 foot wall and get rescued. It opened this weekend in limited release and expands wide Nov. 19th, and I am dying to see it, but recently the movie has fallen to controversy, not because of what we usually find controversial, but from violence. Early buzz from screenings at Telluride, Toronto, and now press screenings, have been that the scene where Ralston (played by James Franco) chops off his arm, has caused vomiting and even fainting in screenings. The scene is told to be highly graphic; probably the most graphic moment is when Ralston cuts through the nerve in his arm! Many have complained about this scene upon seeing the movie, and this begs the question: When is it too much for an audience to handle a certain scene in a movie?

Obviously everyone has different tolerance levels on this sort of subject matter, and while I was young, I remember a similar backlash in the late '90s when Saving Private Ryan came out; many in the press and the media citing the D-Day scene as too gory and realistic for their liking, but jump about 12 years ahead, Saving Private Ryan is considered a classic and one of the best of its genre. Studio Fox Searchlight asked director Danny Boyle if he wanted to cut or trim the sequence down in 127 Hours, but Boyle politely declined. For that, I applaud Boyle to sticking to his guns. If you want someone to feel the pain that Ralston went through, you must make that 20 minute sequence as real as possible. While scenes of excessive gore may bother some, there are others that it wont, and to compromise that realism can make the difference between a classic and that movie that was just okay.

To have a universal cap on violence, or even stuff like nudity, can often hamper the goal of a movie. The MPAA enforces such things with their rating system, and they tell you up front, if a movie is rated R, it cites the reasons why. If a movie is rated NC-17, it tells you why. If they say a movie has grisly violence, and you get squeamish at such things, then it's probably best not to see this particular movie. Same as if you don't want to see a naked person on screen. Every nation in the world has a similar rating system, and they inform the viewer so that the viewer can make the decision as to whether or not to see said movie. As it is, 127 Hours is rated R for violence, so one should definitely heed with caution before seeing the movie.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Movie Review: "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

High School's tough, so Craig tries a psych ward. Craig is a 16-year-old kid who seemingly has everything in the world going for him, good family and friends and good grades, but Craig is suicidal and doesn't understand why, so he checks himself into a psychiatric ward to try and cure himself without his high school friends knowing that he's been committed. As is per movies such as this, Craig discovers himself over his five day stay at the psych ward, making friends and helping change their lives whilst also discovering love, but unlike many other movies, it works so organically within this story that it is believable.

The opening scene shows Craig getting up on the edge of a suspension bridge, about to jump, then he is stopped by his parents, who are only stopping Craig because they want to know what to do with the expensive bike in which they bought him, if he commits suicide. Of course, this was all a dream, but it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It's Kind of a Funny Story laces the typically untouchable subjects of the human psyche that make people squirm and it makes you not just laugh about it, but understand it in the way in which we need to understand in order to cure our psychological problems.

Craig learns self-empowerment, that he actually has something going for him in life, and that the unhappiness he was exhibiting was because he was not living the life he wanted. This is demonstrated in some spectacular sequences, including one where the entire cast of the movie sings Queen's "Under Pressure" as if in an '80s glam rock music video, or an animated sequence that careens through cartoony city streets showing the unlocking of Craig's artistic abilities. And actually, the movie takes itself seriously. These sequences all take place in Craig's mind, as do many other sequences in the movie. Craig's voice-overs coupled with his imagination transpire through dream sequences as to what he's thinking at the moment, what all his friends at school are thinking, or any other thing that may transpire in a teenage boy's mind. It is through these dream sequences and almost Ferris Bueller-like asides from Craig that make this movie the rich and emotional experience that it is.

While It's Kind of a Funny Story is technically a comedy, any comedy that comes within the story only comes through the characters simply being the characters and not through Hollywood contrivances of plot and story. The acting is spot on, never really a sour note with Keir Gilchrist as Craig or Ema Roberts as his love, Noel. Possibly the most surprising performance is that of comedian Zach Galifianakis, who delivers a fine dramatic performance as psych ward patient and Craig's best friend, Bobby, and while Galifianakis is given plenty of moments to make you laugh, the through line of his character's desire to be with his daughter but not being able to overcome his depression is quite possibly the most moving aspect of this piece of cinema.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is what I'd imagine the result would be if John Hughes decided to make a movie about a suicidal teen, supplement his usual High School aesthetic and applying it to a psychiatric ward, that in all actuality has way more intriguing options for interesting characters than an ordinary high school. While the movie is coated by the directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) with an overt indy, hipster aesthetic, much like last year's (500) Days of Summer it does not deter from the sheer enjoyment and impact that you get upon watching this heartwarming movie.

I give It's Kind of a Funny Story an A!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Movie Review: "The Legend of the Guardians - The Owls of Ga'Hoole"

The Legend of the Guardians is a kid's adventure movie that has plenty of action, but never soars. The movie is the story of a young owl named Sorin who dreams of someday becoming one of the mythical Guardians of Ga'Hoole (the owl protectors for all owl kingdom), but when Sorin and his brother are kidnapped by the evil owl clan, The Pure Ones, who vow to take over all of owldom, Sorin must fly out to discover the ancient Guardians in order to save owls the world over. It's a straightforward story utilizing Joseph Cambell's "Hero's Journey," but unlike Star Wars, the potential is never reached. Director Zack Snyder does a marvelous job with the action sequences, and the whole movie is one of the most visually striking pieces of cinema this year, but the story is just too simple. The story is sort of like it's still stuck in outline form, following bulletpoints rather than it feeling as if the story has a natural ebb-and-flow. Snyder never takes the time to drink in the fantastical imagery spun by his animators, and the same goes for the characters. Time is never taken to explore these wonderful characters in greater detail, where as these characters probably leapt off the page in the novel by Kathryn Lasky, and had that time been taken it could have added some much needed emotional connection. It's simple to say, had there been more meat to this than just the bare bones 90 minutes, but alas, this is a movie that could have soared up into the clouds, but settles to fall flat.

I give The Legend of the Guardians an F!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Dark Knight Will Rise, Not Return

Director Christopher Nolan recently announced the official working title for his third outing in the Batman Begins (BB)/The Dark Knight (TDK) franchise. The movie will be called The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR). Following recent news that Nolan had cast Tom Hardy from Inception in an unspecified, large role for the movie, we now have a title and a little bit more news. Nolan confirmed in an interview with Hero Complex that the villain will NOT be The Riddler, so that puts the axe to that rumor mill.

Most fans were speculating that Hardy would be playing the Riddler, many fans were calling it a certainty, even though I never bought into it (I actually have never been of the mind that the Riddler was ever going to be the villain in B3, just saying). This recent confirmation certainly narrows down the list as to who Hardy could be playing, and that's assuming he'll be a villain. What's not to say he'll be Nolan's take on fan favorite, Detective Harvey Bullock? If Hardy were the villain, expect it to be who you would not expect. Sure the Joker was noticably gonna be The Dark Knight's villain because of the Easter Egg at the end of Batman Begins, and if you follow the continuity of The Long Halloween comic series, Two-Face's rise and the Joker's rise work so well together, it's almost a disservice not to have the two in conjunction. But looking at what Nolan did with Batman Begins, I'd say it is more likely with The Dark Knight Rises to follow a similar villain pattern.

Word is, like BB, that TDKR will be shot primarily on soundstages, and only the exterior shooting will occur in Chicago, where as almost all of the footage in TDK, both exterior and interior, was shot in Chi-Town. Not only will BB and TDKR share this similarity, but I believe Nolan will take a similar approach in terms of the villain. With BB, Nolan chose the Scarecrow, Carmine Falcone, and Ra's Al Ghul as villains, three villains that are major to comic book readers, but unknowns to non-comic bookies. Where as villains like the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, and Two-Face, are knowns to those not affiliated with the comics. I'm expecting Nolan to throw a curve ball, so no, I do not think that the villain will be Catwoman, so the recent news that Nolan is meeting with young 20-something actresses for an unspecified female role should most likely not be taken as Catwoman is gonna be the villain. Whether or not Selina Kyle and her feline alter ego make an appearance is up to Nolan, but I think if Nolan rejects a character like the Penguin as being too fantastical, than Catwoman is in the same leagues. So whose that leave left for villains, and who is this unspecified female role?

As for who I think the villain will be, Batman has one of the greatest rogues galleries of any superhero, with so many memorable villains that you could make movies all about on their own. On this front, the gangster Black Mask is a popular guess for Hardy, some even mention the Mad Hatter, though I've wanted to throw someone like Killer Croc and Clayface into the mix. Even though Nolan is against the fantastical, I think these two could be done credibally and realistically if thought about in the right way. I mean, Killer Croc could be a circus freak who's real strong and feral with a bad skin condition, or Clayface be a man who uses clay to distort his appearance and uses hardened clay weapons to pull of crimes. Just examples of realistic takes on these characters that are deemed fantastical. As for the unspecified female role, it could tie into the villain. While I doubt Nolan will do Poison Ivy, I think someone like Talia Al Ghul, Ra's Al Ghul's daughter, could be a great love interest and villain for Bruce to face, and not to mention it would sort of round out the trilogy starting with a connection from BB to TDKR in terms of villain, and could also be a reason to bring back Liam Neeson as Ducard. Primarily though, I think that this female role will be a love interest good guy, most likely Vicki Vale.

Now what does this title mean, The Dark Knight Rises? I think Rises is the primary word. He's not having to Return from anything, so that would be stupid word choice, and we already know that he is The Dark Knight, thanks to the brilliant soliloquoy from Gordon at the end of the last movie. If you think on the events of TDK and how that movie ended, this title gives you an inkling not just to its significance, but how it will most likely shape the story.

From the Joker's arrival in Gotham to his capture in the end, he brought so much havoc upon Gotham City that when Batman finally managed to stop him, everything that Batman had worked for was destroyed. Batman tried to save Rachel, but saved Harvey instead (and yes, this is what I believe happened, I think the Joker knew he was gonna save Rachel so he tricked him telling him where Harvey was instead, as is evidenced by Batman's surprise and hesitation when he enters the room of barrels and sees Harvey, not Rachel). Back on track. That event scarred the White Knight of Gotham, Harvey, and ruined any further chance of Batman gaining public support through one of his greatest allies. Not only that, he intentionally framed himself as Dent's killer so that Dent's image would not be tarnished and Gotham would not fall into worse turmoil, assuming the mantle of the Dark Knight. We end the movie with Batman being chased by the police and Gordon destroying the bat signal atop Gotham PD. So Batman is a vigilante hunted by the law, and this is where The Dark Knight Rises will most likely start.

Batman is still hunted by the police, but by this movie being called The Dark Knight Rises, I think that this movie will be all about Batman's own redemption. One of the common themes of Nolan's Bat-movies has been, "Things were always gonna get worse before they got better," and I think that this final movie will be where they get better. TDK is where they got worse, now he must Rise, but not just in the eyes of Gotham's citizens, but in himself. Batman pretty much lost faith in himself after letting Rachel die and not being able to save her, not to mention the whole predicament with Harvey. While he brought the Joker to justice, there will just be another freak to take his place. I think Batman is coming out of his darkest moment as a hero, and he will be redeemed in TDKR, as noticed by the title.

Ultimately, most of this is just guesswork. I have no inside track on the villains or supporting cast that will be included, nor on the story that there will be, all I can do is make educated assumptions based on what I know and my knowledge of the Batman comic books. While I feel The Dark Knight Rises is sort of wordy for a movie title, it works. We'll just have to wait and see if any of my guesses come to fruition.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Movie Review: "Red"

Retired and Extremely Dangerous (R.E.D.), that is the acronym for Red, the story of retired CIA agents being hunted down by the agency because of the secrets that they know. As is usual with these espionage flicks, there are twists, there are turns, but this movie takes the usual tropes of a Jack Ryan-Tom Clancy movie and makes it all funny.

In this cartoonish action flick, Bruce Willis plays retired CIA agent, Frank Moses, who has fallen in love with the woman over the telephone line in charge of his government pension, Sarah (played by Mary-Louise Parker). But when CIA agents come knocking on Frank's door, Frank has no choice but to run and kidnap his love, who he has never seen. With Sarah at his side, Frank reassembles his old unit, consisting of vet actors like Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren.

The jokes fly between these veteran actors with so much ease, you would think that these consumate professionals have been working together all their lives, and that is the mark of a truly magnificent actor. John Malkovich gives probably the most memorable turn as a retiree who is constantly paranoid that the government is watching him, but Helen Mirren isn't far behind with her trigger happy, Grandmommy James Bond seductress, persona. I thought actor Karl Urban, playing the agent hunting R.E.D. down, was a nice foil to Bruce Willis's character, but Morgan Freeman actually had the most forgettable role in the whole movie, dying halfway through. While the movie has some missed opportunities in terms of exploring the proposed concepts of not having a life or love when part of the CIA, these few moments of proposal are never really explored which could have made this movie a more memorable romp.

Director Robert Schwentke directs the action sequences with a visual flare that many directors seem to lack when working in this genre, but the story is often vague. Why R.E.D. is being hunted by the CIA is never explained in full. We know all of this stuff they're fighting for means something to these characters, but we, as the audience, are clueless as to why. While the overall ride gives you just enough information to warrant you wanting to sit through to the next action sequence, this movie could have been so much more had this story been made clearer. Regardless, the movie is an enjoyable action flick with some slick visuals and a fair few laughs to warrant the time.

I give Red a C+!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review Roundup: "Mao's Last Dancer" and "Endhiran"

**Mao's Last Dancer**

Communism vs. Democracy, interesting that a movie about ballet can present this issue in such a clear light. I guess one could say art always mirrors society. Mao's Last Dancer never really chooses sides, it's more about the freedom of the heart, the tolls and the triumphs associated with it.

The movie tells the true life story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin. Cunxin was born in Communist China to peasants, where at a young age he was handpicked by government officials to attend the Beijing Art Academy to learn dance. There he became a star and got the opportunity to study for three months in Houston, TX, problem is, once coming to America, Cunxin finally learns to "fly" and does not wish to return to Communist China.

The movie was competently directed by Driving Miss Daisy director, Bruce Beresford, though I feel some of the dance sequences could have been suited better if he didn't film them as if a spectator and rather as the dancer themselves. Never do you get the rush of exhilaration, or the stimulation of dance through the visuals. While this doesn't deter the emotional impact of the story, it could have added more, though many of the dances showcased, symbolically link to the story. The whole relationship between Cunxin's future wife Mary is never really explained through dialogue like the relationship between Cunxin and his first wife, Liz (Cunxin's marriage of convenience to stay in the States after getting defected from his home country). Unlike the relationship with Liz, the relationship with Mary is all done through dance, and dare I say it the way the dancers perform their dances, is sensual.

The beginning jumps around from flashback to modern day, from Li's childhood in China, to his time in Houston, and it is a touch jarring. No character is ever given a proper introduction, they're just thrown in there, which works more as a detriment than it helps. Regardless, once Li starts training ballet at the Beijing Arts Academy, the movie really finds its groove and excels from there on out. Professional ballet dancer Chi Cao plays the role of Li Cunxin well, but he is still a better dancer than actor, the real stand out being B-list actor Bruce Greenwood, who plays the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, selfishly wanting the best talent, unless that talent reflects poorly upon him.

Arching over the entire movie is Li's relationship with his parents and how Li cannot see or contact his parents after being defected. This, in fact, is the best aspect of the whole movie. Ultimately, Beresford makes you feel Li's yearning to return to his home country and see his family again that you actually soar alongside Li as he dances with Mary when they are finally allowed to return to his home village in China. Mao's Last Dancer is cinema at its finest, it transports you to another place and time, and even through a rocky start and maybe a too classical visual style, the movie manages to touch the heart and uplift the soul.

I give Mao's Last Dancer an A-!

(Mao's Last Dancer can currently be seen playing at the Edge 12 in Irondale, AL)


Endhiran roughly translates to "The Robot" and what you get in this Bollywood adventure is a big smashing together of nearly every trope ever associated to robotic androids in movies.

The story follows an Indian scientist who has created a robotic replication of himself. The robot named Chitti is designed to be a super soldier for the Indian government, but when Chitti starts to feel human emotion and courts the scientist's girlfriend, things begin to go awry.

The movie is part action, part drama, part comedy, part romance, part musical, etc. It is a lot of things, and like many Bollywood movies, it doesn't seem to work that well in the transitions. Really, the movie does try to deal with the heavy concept of human emotions and the dangers of them, but these odd transitions between different styles do not aid in accentuating this theme. For example, whenever the characters feel a rush of emotion they burst into song-and-dance to techno glory, but these scenes, much like the action scenes and the infamous mosquito scene (which was ridiculous and just plain weird, where Chitti converses with a pack of mosquitos), they all drag on for far too long, as if the filmmakers could not distill down the scenes to a reasonable length. And speaking of the bizarre, the change in the middle of the movie where Chitti goes from being the good guy to being the bad guy just makes little to no sense, and it feels as if there are two movies here rather than one. Focus on finishing one story before gearing up another.

Endhiran may appeal to fans of Bollywood, but to us others it leaves us scratching our heads after this visually stimulating, but unfulfilling ride of human emotion.

I give Endhiran an F!
P.S. I have to comment on the passing of TV and stage legend Tom Bosley, Mr. C from Happy Days. Bosley was 83-years-old and died from lung cancer. Bosley will be sincerely missed by all those who grew up and loved him as if we were a fellow member of the Cunningham family.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Movie Review: "The Social Network"

What's the point of being rich if you have no friends? The opening credits of The Social Network play over a scene of future Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) solitarily running across the Harvard campus, passing socializing college kids without a second glance from Zuckerberg. Mark has just been broken up with by this beautiful girl because Mark could not understand the concept of human relationships. All Mark wants to be is somebody, and he gets that wish, if nothing else, in the end.

The Social Network tells the story of the founding of the now famous social networking website, Facebook, and all of the lawsuits and broken relationships it took to create the source of friendships for the 21st century. In a way, writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have crafted a modern day Shakespearean tragedy. No, there is no murder, but there is a ton of backstabbing. Nowadays, we don't need to kill to usurp power, we just need money, and more of it. Whether Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from some collegiate athletes wanting to make a Harvard dating website or not, this is all irrelevant, the bottom line is, Zuckerberg, like all great tragic heroes, made the wrong alliances (Sean Parker, founder of Napster) and allienated his only real friend (Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook and former CFO).

Actor Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin with such an emotional range, that I would say Garfield's performance is the heart of the movie. You feel for Eduardo being phased out of the company by his one and only friend and Zuckerberg's new "so-called friend" Sean Parker, played surprisingly well by Justin Timberlake in fantastic acting form. The true reason Eduardo is phased out is never really explained, maybe Mark was always jealous that Eduardo was more popular than he, or that Sean felt threatened by Eduardo's business prowess. The worst part is, and this is what really makes The Social Network a tragedy, is that Mark spent so many hours working on his computer with headphones on, tuning out the rest of the world, that he never listened to reason and lost his only legitimate friend. This turn towards pathos in the final scenes of the movie are played exceptionally well by Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg. With just one look, Eisenberg manages to convey a range of unsaid emotions, that while he is still talking like the world's biggest socially awkward jerk, he knows what he's lost.

I give The Social Network an A+!